LONDON — Government-sanctioned memorials to the victims of COVID-19 may be years away, but in Europe, some people are making their own. One of the most striking memorials so far is in London, where volunteers have painted more than 150,000 red hearts on a wall along the south bank of the River Thames.
People stop to write the names of lost loved ones inside the hearts along with messages as a way to remember and make sense of huge loss of life in the United Kingdom.
"We were hearing the numbers were going up 40,000, 50,000, 60,000, and it lost meaning," says Fran Hall, who was touching up hearts with a paint-brush one day last month. Hall, who volunteers with the group behind the unofficial memorial — Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK — lost her husband, Steve Mead, to COVID-19 three weeks after they were married.
The group, which began painting the hearts in March, chose a wall across from the British Parliament and is pressuring the government to start an inquiry into its mishandling of the pandemic.
"It's a political location," says Hall. "The decision-makers can't miss this."
Many criticized British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for moving too slowly to address the pandemic when it emerged in the early months of 2020. Since then, the country's National Health Service has received high scores for fully vaccinating three-quarters of the country's adults.
Johnson announced earlier this year that an inquiry into the government's handling of the pandemic will begin in spring 2022. The prime minister said he did not want to begin an inquiry until the government was certain the worst of the pandemic has passed.
NPR London producer Jessica Beck contributed to this report.
This story originally published in the Morning Edition live blog.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It may be years before people are making formal memorials to the victims of COVID-19. But in Europe, some people are already making their own. One striking memorial is in London, where our correspondent Frank Langfitt paid a visit.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm on the south bank of the River Thames. I'm just across from Parliament and Big Ben. And there's this really long wall. It's about a third of a mile long. And it's covered with tens of thousands of hearts that have been painted on. It's red hearts. And on some of the hearts, people have come along. And they've used black markers to fill in the names of loved ones who've died from COVID. There's a couple right in front of me who are writing a name on the wall right now. Excuse me, may I see?
VIVIAN PIPE: Yes.
LANGFITT: David Kitchener (ph).
LANGFITT: May 6, 2020. We all miss you.
PIPE: He was just coming up to his 70th birthday. His birthday would have been the 8th of May.
LANGFITT: This is Vivian Pipe.
PIPE: His wife is my cousin. As the foursome, we used to go out a lot together, short breaks and holidays together. Of course, he's not there now. So we do things with his wife. And so we thought we'd do this, take a picture and we'll send it to her.
LANGFITT: What do you think of the wall?
PIPE: I like it. I think it's nice to have a remembrance.
ALAN: Just really glad that it's here.
LANGFITT: This is Vivian's husband, Alan.
ALAN: It's a reminder that it can affect anybody and everybody.
LANGFITT: So a little further down the wall, there are a group of women with paint brushes. And they're actually repainting the hearts. One of them is a woman named Fran Hall. And she sort of helped get this all going
FRAN HALL: I'm part of the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group. And we are just doing maintenance on the wall and redoing the hearts, which are fading because the weather and the sunshine and the rain has got to them. So we've got a big job on our hands. There's over 150,000 hearts.
LANGFITT: People who lost loved ones to COVID started painting the wall back in March this year. And right now, they're pushing the government to start an inquiry into the mishandling of the pandemic.
HALL: We were hearing the numbers were going up, 40,000, 50,000, 60,000. And it lost meaning. What they wanted to do was a visual representation of how many lives have been lost.
LANGFITT: And they chose this spot right across from Parliament to get the government's attention.
HALL: It's a political location. The decision-makers can't miss this. Somebody walked past earlier and said, the government just want this to quietly fade away. Well, we won't let that happen. We're going to be here every week.
LANGFITT: Fran lost her husband, Steve Mead. They were newlyweds.
HALL: We got married in September last year. But he was positive with COVID. We didn't realize on the day that we got married. So our entire three weeks of married life before he died, he was becoming iller (ph) and iller with COVID.
LANGFITT: What does the wall mean to you?
HALL: It's been a way that I can focus in a really awful period of my life when I'm trying to work out what I'm going to do with the rest of my life without the man that I thought I'd be with.
LANGFITT: So walking along the wall, you see all kinds of different messages that people have left. Somebody has written down the names of what looks like 30 or more doctors and surgeons from the National Health Service who died during COVID. Here's another note, to the suicide victims caused through lockdown, referring to the people who took their lives after spending so many months stuck inside. The wall has been up for about five months now, so it doesn't attract the same kind of attention it used to. And a few people who pass by, they aren't convinced.
RICHARD DUCKETT: COVID, the numbers, the data, I don't trust any of it. Seriously.
CREEDON: You can't trust the numbers.
LANGFITT: This is Richard Duckett and his buddy, Creedon, who didn't want to give his full name because he doesn't really trust the traditional media. Richard and Creedon are part of a small minority in the U.K. who think COVID is a conspiracy.
CREEDON: It's an agenda. I think it's depopulation.
LANGFITT: Who do you think is behind this?
CREEDON: The cabal.
DUCKETT: One hundred percent.
LANGFITT: The men believe COVID is part of a secret plan to radically reduce the world's population, which, of course, is totally false.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CAWING)
LANGFITT: The volunteers are finishing up for the day. Fran Hall says they'll keep coming back each Friday to repaint the hearts and continue to paint new ones for the scores of people who continue to die from COVID in the U.K. each day.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ECHELON EFFECT'S "WALKING EMPTY STREETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.